Bookmakers' favourite Prophet Song by Paul Lynch, "a triumph of emotional storytelling" took home the coveted Booker Prize 2023 last night. He received £50,000 and was presented with his trophy by Shehan Karunatilaka, last year’s winner, at a ceremony held at Old Billingsgate, London. The event was hosted by Samira Ahmed and broadcast live as a special episode of BBC Radio 4 Front Row. It was also livestreamed in an hour-long online programme, hosted by Jack Edwards and featuring interviews with special guests, on the Booker Prizes’ and Jack’s own YouTube channels simultaneously. Watch here.
Prophet Song, which is Lynch’s fifth novel, is an exhilarating, propulsive and confrontational portrait of a country – and a family – on the brink of catastrophe. Ireland is in the grip of a government that is taking a turn towards tyranny and Eilish Stack, the novel’s protagonist, soon finds herself trying to make sense of the nightmare of a collapsing society – assailed by unpredictable forces beyond her control and desperate to do whatever it takes to keep her family together.
Esi Edugyan, Chair of the 2023 Judges, commented: ‘From that first knock at the door, Prophet Song forces us out of our complacency as we follow the terrifying plight of a woman seeking to protect her family in an Ireland descending into totalitarianism. We felt unsettled from the start, submerged in – and haunted by – the sustained claustrophobia of Lynch’s powerfully constructed world. He flinches from nothing, depicting the reality of state violence and displacement and offering no easy consolations. Here the sentence is stretched to its limits – Lynch pulls off feats of language that are stunning to witness. He has the heart of a poet, using repetition and recurring motifs to create a visceral reading experience. This is a triumph of emotional storytelling, bracing and brave. With great vividness, Prophet Song captures the social and political anxieties of our current moment. Readers will find it soul-shattering and true, and will not soon forget its warnings.’
The winning book was selected from 163 titles published between 1st October 2022 and 30th September 2023, and submitted to the prize by publishers.
The Booker Prize is open to unified and sustained works of fiction by writers of any nationality, written in English and published in the UK or Ireland.
When asked why he chose to set his novel in a dystopian Ireland, and if it was inspired by any real-world events, Lynch told the Booker Prizes website: ‘I was trying to see into the modern chaos. The unrest in Western democracies. The problem of Syria – the implosion of an entire nation, the scale of its refugee crisis and the West’s indifference. Prophet Song is partly an attempt at radical empathy. To understand better, we must first experience the problem for ourselves. So I sought to deepen the dystopian by bringing to it a high degree of realism. I wanted to deepen the reader’s immersion to such a degree that by the end of the book, they would not just know, but feel this problem for themselves.’
Melissa Harrison in the Guardian wrote that ‘The Irish offspring of The Handmaid’s Tale and Nineteen Eighty-Four, Paul Lynch’s Booker-longlisted fifth novel is as nightmarish a story as you’ll come across: powerful, claustrophobic and horribly real. From its opening pages it exerts a grim kind of grip; even when approached cautiously and read in short bursts it somehow lingers, its world leaking out from its pages like black ink into clear water... Where Prophet Song leads us in its closing pages is shocking, yet grimly inevitable. We would do well not to look away.’
As the winner, Lynch can expect instant international recognition and a dramatic increase in global sales. The 2022 Booker Prize was won by Shehan Karunatilaka with The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida. After winning, sales of the book soared to over 115,000 across all formats, according to its publisher Sort of Books. It has now been translated into 29 languages and has outsold Karunatilaka’s previous novel, Chinaman, by over 2,000%.
The Booker Prize trophy, presented to Lynch, was originally designed by the beloved children’s author and illustrator Jan Pieńkowski in 1969, and was reinstated last year. Earlier this year, it was named Iris in a public vote, in honour of Iris Murdoch, who won the Booker Prize in 1978 for The Sea, The Sea. Each of the shortlisted authors received £2,500 and a unique, hand-bound edition of their book, designed by six Fellows of the Designer Bookbinders society, which were on display at the ceremony.